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Washington • A proposed national monument would first have to go through an environmental review under legislation approved Wednesday by the House.
The House voted largely along party lines 222 to 201 to pass Utah Rep. Rob Bishop's legislation that would restrict a president's unilateral power to protect large swaths of public land without congressional approval.
Bishop said this approach is necessary to allow public input into monument designations that currently are done with a stroke of a pen and without environmental review. The bill, which would mark the first major change to the 1906 Antiquities Act in decades, now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where passage is less likely.
Bishop, R-Utah, said good intentions were associated with the original act, but in recent times it's been used as a "political weapon, a gotcha effort, a power play," done to appease presidential supporters.
"The way it has been used has changed radically," Bishop said. President Barack "Obama has already used it eight times and counting."
Rep. Chris Stewart said a thorough environmental review is a good idea and that any valid designation would withstand scrutiny.
"You have to twist yourselves into pretzels in order to object to this bill," said Stewart, R-Utah, whose district includes the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Its creation in 1996 raised the ire of some Utahns.
Democrats countered that Bishop and Republicans were simply trying to hamper a president's ability to protect sensitive areas and slow down or kill the power to designate public lands as monuments. About half of America's national parks began as monuments under the Antiquities Act, including four of Utah's five national parks.
Arizona's Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said Bishop's legislation was another GOP attempt to stall protection of public lands. He noted that only one bill to set aside wilderness has passed Congress in recent years.
Grijalva called the bill "another feather in the anti-environment cap," and said environmental reviews of monuments aren't needed.
"I hate to break it to the majority, but the conservation and the establishment of national monuments don't have the same footprint as open-pit mines and oil wells," he said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called Bishop's bill "horrible legislation," and said that while there have been some more controversial monuments like the Grand Staircase there hasn't been legislation to repeal it.
"No one no one has proposed legislation to repeal that designation by President Clinton," DeFazio said. "Perhaps because it enjoys tremendous popular support."
A 2011 poll of Utahns found that 69 percent of voters felt the Grand Staircase monument was "very good" or "somewhat good," as opposed to 16 percent who said it was "somewhat bad" or "very bad."
Environmentalists were dismayed by Wednesday's vote. Craig Obey, senior vice president for government affairs of the National Parks Conservation Association, called the action shortsighted.
"This is a sad day for our national parks, which are universally appreciated throughout our country and the world," Obey said. "The parks, including those added via the Antiquities Act, enjoy overwhelming public support, which makes action to reduce presidential authority to protect such places under the Antiquities Act all the more mystifying."
Democrats also tried Wednesday to hijack the conversation about the Antiquities Act to push comprehensive immigration reform and to raise the minimum wage.
One after one, Democratic House members asked for consent to bring up the immigration reform package one that would allow a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally while Bishop tried to talk about his Antiquities Act legislation. Bishop objected several times, and then the acting speaker began objecting for Bishop.
"I would be happy to talk about the bill that is before us because it's a wonderful bill," Bishop said about his legislation, visibly annoyed at the Democrats' attempts.
Later on, before final passage of the bill, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., tried to attach a measure to raise the minimum wage to Bishop's bill. It was defeated 193-227.
Bishop's bill would require a president to go through a study under the National Environmental Policy Act before designating a national monument. The president can do that now without any study.
The measure does let a president name a small monument in an emergency, without a review. But without a congressional endorsement, the designation would expire in three years.
Burr on the bill
Tribune reporter Thomas Burr discussed the bill on C-SPAN on Wednesday. Here's a link to the interview: http://www.c-span.org/video/?318530-1/national-monuments-legislation